This morning's reading from the Hebrew scriptures is from the 16th chapter of the first book of Samuel. Just like the soap operas of old, let me bring you up to speed "on the story this far...."
Saul, the king, has rejected God's command that the Amalekites be killed, and that all their chattel and possessions be destroyed as an offering to God. Saul and his fighting men were supposed to place EVERYTHING Amalekite under the ban. Instead, they spared Agag, the king, the best sheep and cattle and "everything of value." Everything that was "not of value" was destroyed. In this, Saul disobeyed God. Let's leave aside the horror of genocide sanctioned by the Almighty for just a moment. That is a tangled knot to open that is near Gordian in nature. For now, let's focus on Saul, Samuel and God.
God regrets naming Saul King. Samuel is disturbed by this turn of events. He wasn't for the kingship in the first place. Now, with Saul's failure to keep God's will, and with God's rejection of Saul over Israel...what will happen?
Nothing good. At all. At first.
Samuel has to give Saul the bad news. Saul reacts badly. This is not good news. What happens next?
The 15th chapter closes with Saul holding a shred of Samuel's garment, a symbol that the kingdom has been torn from him. Samuel is left with blood on his hands, being tasked with killing Agag of the Amalekites because Saul chose not to execute him when he was ordered to do so. God...well, God regrets.
Things are left in a tension that NO ONE wants, and yet the human tragedy is unfolding as we watch Samuel begin to grieve.
He grieves over God's regret. As a prophet, a person tuned into God's Word by the charisma of the Holy Spirit, he would feel that keenly. He grieves over Saul. Saul's failure was something Samuel saw coming from a distance. Saul feels God's rejection and withdrawal. Samuel finally grieves for Israel. What was supposed to be a good thing, the establishment of the monarchy, has failed in its inception.
All that grief, and all that failure, pile up around Samuel. Where does he go from here?
Have you ever been in that place? Where the failures you have perpetrated, or have experienced, are piled up around like so the mountains of loose baggage that lie around the unclaimed desk in the airport? Have you been there before? Have you even consigned someone to that place because of their failures, failures to serve you or your institution well?
It is not a good place to be. That fetid soil is the place where depression, doubt, fear, uncertainty, anger, resentment, worry, stress....even death all find a place to root and grow. It is a place where hope goes to die. I am not being melodramatic. I have been there. It is the valley of the shadow of death.
And that is where God finds Samuel as he grieves Saul, the death of Saul's kingship. That is where God finds Samuel wrestling with his anger, frustration and doubt over God's judgment to have made Saul king in the first place.
Failure is a really tough thing to experience. It is tough to observe. It is deadly, and real, abject failure is nearly impossible to survive.
....and yet God finds Samuel grieving in that dark closet of shadows. He confronts the prophet with a challenge: "How long will you grieve over Saul?"
God's challenge, really God's invitation to the prophet is to get up and go....go find the new king God has chosen. Go find....David.
Here's the thing, though...from failure, God finds a new beginning. God is the one who continually calls on us to lift up our eyes, our hearts...to take what we have and find the way forward that God has set for us.
It's not how far we fall, or how much we fail. It is that we are willing, by God's grace, to get up again...to rise and see what God has in store.
Of course, there will be other failures, other losses. Great and small...but if Samuel and Saul can teach us anything it is that in God's economy even the darkest and most abject of failures will always lead to new beginnings, new growth and even the opportunity for wisdom and hope for the fallen.